In late September of last year, J.T. English released the book Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus. In the last six months, I have heard several reference English’s thinking as it relates to disciple making–enough so that I determined I should see what the noise was all about. After reading English’s work for myself, I believe his contribution to the current shift in the stream of how we “do” church is significant enough that it’s worthwhile to take a few minutes to share some of my reflections.
English writes Deep Discipleship primarily out of a concern for a church movement that has seen followers of Jesus become increasingly biblically, and therefore doctrinally, illiterate. English currently serves as the Lead Pastor for Storyline Church in Arvada Colorado. Previously he served at Village Church in the capacity of a discipleship pastor and leader of the Village Church institute.
He has a strong background in educating believers, and the fact that he places a high value upon Christ-centered education is evident in his writing.
English begins by sharing a personal story of medical misdiagnosis and uses this as the basis to launch his main argument for a better way of making whole disciples. He acknowledges what many church leaders and para-church organizations have been declaring loudly in the last decade: the American Church has a problem. At its core the Church is sick, but because at a fundamental level we have misdiagnosed the ailment, we have thrown all the wrong treatments at the problem.
As I read Deep Discipleship, I often found my head nodding in appreciation and agreement as English made his case for the need to take people deeper into the mysteries of Christ, thereby raising awareness of the awe-inducing beauty of the God we serve. How do we do this?
English argues for more teaching–this while much of the Christian world seems to be making the case for less. And he argues this teaching must be specific and focused. Again, his primary contention is that biblical illiteracy accounts for much of the dysfunction within the Church in the current moment. English offers hope for churches willing to embrace purposeful discipleship by raising the bar this way and provides numerous anecdotes from his own personal experience in discipling others.
Here is what I think is truly good about Deep Discipleship:
- I am extremely thankful for J.T. English’s contribution to a growing body of contemporary writings which acknowledge the importance of uniting missional and institutional church expressions. This is not something he points to directly, but he alludes to it. We need the missional and organizational expressions of the Church. One doesn’t do well without the other.
- English is spot on in encouraging church leaders to embrace the reality that discipleship requires intentionality and specific focus. Good intentions alone will not lead to true discipling environments/spaces.
- English’s conversation about “want” vs. “need” is something all churches should pay attention to. Too often we are more concerned with what the people who are connected to our churches want, and not nearly concerned enough with what those same people need. This, in my opinion, should become a guiding principle for churches who seek to move people to grow as disciples of Jesus.
- English presents a much better vision of how churches who embrace a primarily attractional model can make “whole disciples.” Yes, I am intentional in the way I word this praise, as I believe the relational discipleship model is a better vision yet.
- This quote: “The best discipleship spaces shouldn’t satisfy our desires. They shape our desires and create a hunger for more.” That’s good. With this one statement, English gives us a goal we should all aspire to.
Here is where I think Deep Discipleship likely falls short:
- English has a strong emphasis on the words of Paul as they relate to discipleship. While this is good, I sometimes felt as though an emphasis on the example of Jesus as it relates to disciple making was missing.
- What English presents strikes me as a better, more focused version of the educational discipleship model, or possibly even a pitch to attractional churches, asking them not to give up on educating Jesus’ followers. While we must educate followers of Jesus, I would argue that if this is our primary emphasis or mode of discipling people, we will fall short.
- I would contend that disciple-making churches would be better served by fully embracing a relational model, instead of simply revamping either the attractional or educational models. In the end I would ask this question: Do more, or even better, Bible classes make better disciples?
Ultimately, I am truly excited as I’ve witnessed the way English’s book has been received by those who have mostly parted ways with spaces that allow for deeper teaching. At a personal level, I believe I’m better for having read English’s work and, although I do point to some potential shortfalls, these shortfalls pale in comparison to the net positive contribution made by Deep Discipleship. With that in mind, I highly recommend this book to all who value the mission to be disciples who make disciples.
Biblical illiteracy accounts for much of the dysfunction that exists within the Church in the current moment.